How Sweet It Is

It tastes good and lifts our spirits.  It comforts us and quells our appetite.  Yet we know it’s bad for us and sometimes suspect we may be addicted to it.

I’m talking about sugar – and the love-hate relationship many women have with it.  Unfortunately for many of us, Mother Nature didn’t provide us with brakes when it comes to consuming sugar.  In the wild, it’s probably a good thing to eat your fill of that berry bush because it may be awhile before you encounter another one.  But we’ve become so good at refining and producing the stuff that it’s now freely available to us in virtually unlimited amounts.  So we eat…and eat and eat, despite the fact that it’s loaded with empty calories (bad for our waistlines), promotes tooth decay (bad for our looks), and raises triglycerides and releases free radicals (bad for our health).  In large amounts it increases insulin levels and in some individuals leads to insulin resistance and eventually Type 2 diabetes.

Three hundred years ago, the average American consumed around four pounds of sugar per year, if that.  Today, it’s estimated that we eat 90-180 pounds per year. Much of it is consumed in the form of sugar added to our coffee or in soft drinks, fruit juices, sports drinks, and desserts. But because sugar, in addition to being a sweetening agent, has other properties useful in food-processing (it cuts acidity, increases shelf life, adds bulk and texture, prevents clumping, moisturizes, changes the boiling point of water, caramelizes/browns, and promotes fermentation), it’s also found in foods you might never think of as sources of sugar – tomato-based products, bologna, pretzels, cheese spread, and Worcestershire sauce, to name a few.

You don’t have to be a smoker to love sugar but it helps.  In a laboratory study we conducted nearly two decades ago, we found that significantly more smokers than nonsmokers preferred higher sucrose concentrations.  And we know that when smokers quit, they tend to eat more – which, for those with a sweet tooth, means more sugar.

The link between smoking and sugar dates back at least to the 17th century, when they were obtained in the West Indies to satisfy the growing demand for both in Europe, in exchange for West Africans sold into slavery – the notorious Triangle Trade. This shameful chapter marks a low point in the shared history of sugar and tobacco, but the two are paired in other ways as well. For many of us, for example, candy cigarettes were our first introduction to “smoking.”

The problem is not sugar per se – as noted above, a little of it is a good thing.  It provides a quick boost of energy.  It helps the medicine go down. But we’re now in a situation of “too much of a good thing” – and that’s a bad thing.  So how can you avoid excessive sugar intake when you quit?  Here are a few tips.

  • Remember, now that you’ve stopped smoking, your taste receptors will start to recover their sensitivity so it may take less sugar to satisfy your desire for sweets. Indulge in bite-size bits, chewing thoroughly to release the flavor. Take time to savor; as the French say, “It’s all in the first bites. “
  • Try sucking hard candies like lemon drops or (if you’re not using Nicorette) chewing gum.  This suggestion is based on studies of glucose tablets, which, though they don’t promote smoking cessation in and of themselves, can suppress craving for nicotine.  The idea here is to get your sweet “fix” in a long-lasting form; can’t hurt, might help!
  • Keep nutritious low-calorie snacks at least as readily available as your stash of sweet treats.
  • Don’t skip meals in an effort to reduce overall intake or control weight. Prolonged intervals between meals lead to low blood sugar, which may provoke sudden hunger pangs that induce craving for sweets and binge-eating.
  • Reduce your intake of processed foods.  If you make it yourself, you’ll know and control how much sugar goes into your food.

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© 2009 All Rights Reserved, Dr. Cynthia S. Pomerleau
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